Working quickly, Birdie tugged apart the threads at the corner of the hem. A small metal box slipped out of the bunting and clattered to the floor. Cringing at the noise, she snatched it up and stumbled to her feet. The businessman at table four was still barking into his phone. Relief spilled through her.
Facing away from him, she turned the box over in her hand. The thin wedge of silver bore a swirling design of roses etched into the tight-fitting lid. Was it an earring box? It looked fancy and feminine, the sort of item a woman from an earlier era might keep in her purse.
With care, she pried off the lid. Her heart bounded at the sight of the embroidered cloth inside. Delicate loops of thread artfully rendered the two lines of poetry. Another clue!
Brick by brick, my love
My life built alone, without you—
Her exhilaration waned. Sadness curled through each word.
This wasn’t merely a clue. The lines of poetry were something more, a first glimpse into a broken heart. Had Justice embroidered the fabric with the stitches of her sorrow? The fabric had been worked with unmistakable passion. Was this proof positive of her love for Lucas, the beloved she’d left behind in South Carolina?
Gently, Birdie placed the cloth inside the box and closed the lid. She slipped the box into the pocket of her apron and returned to the counter. From somewhere inside the kitchen, Ethel Lynn made a series of sputtering noises. Finney shouted.
Brick by brick, my love. Birdie wandered over to the cash register, where the portrait of Justice hung on the wall. Was it even possible to solve a riddle about bricks? The building housing The Second Chance Grill was built of bricks, thousands of them. If the diamond was hidden behind one, she could hunt from now until doomsday and never find it.
My life built alone, without you. There was real sorrow in the poem. The sorrow of lovers forced to build lives separate from each other? Perhaps Justice had loved Lucas deeply. The passage north was surely filled with hardship for a former slave. If the stories in Birdie’s family were true and the freedwoman was pregnant during the journey, if she was overwhelmed with grief for the man she’d left behind, how had she found the courage to build a new life in Ohio?
Until now, Birdie had only thought of the hidden treasure as a means to vault her into a new life where she’d live quietly and carefully—and legally. No more picking pockets or running from state to state evading the law. She’d free herself from a painful and ugly past. She hadn’t viewed the treasure for what it was—a symbol of devotion between a man and a woman torn apart by the harsh boundaries of the society in which they’d lived.
Shame brought her head up. She’d only thought of her own gain. An old habit, she’d learned little else over the years.
She’d grown up watching her mother use men then discard them at whim. And she’d experienced her own dead-end affairs. The tenuous concord between men and women, the passion and the lies—she came of age determined never to fall prey to love. Even the spontaneous and fleeting affection she’d shown Hugh was meant to comfort, not inflame. A moment in his arms hadn’t altered her pessimism toward relationships.
Her heart sinking, she found her attention straying back to the portrait. Justice appeared to regard her with haughty displeasure, her large, wide-set eyes filled with dark fire. Regret pricked Birdie. Was she waiting for Justice to miraculously come to life and issue a stern warning? The freedwoman had gone to great lengths to safeguard whatever Lucas had entrusted to her. The treasure had meant something to them both. Birdie wrapped her arms around herself, sticky with self-loathing.
She had no right to the treasure.
When did she ever stop to think about right and wrong? A good thief skimmed the surface like a dragonfly zooming above the murky pond of other lives, darting in to take whatever was coveted before flying off again. The consequences of her actions never mattered until now.
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